Activists told a standing-room-only crowd Wednesday at the La Plata campus of the College of Southern Maryland that the county's way into the future is at a fork in the road with its plan for a cross-county connector.
"The county commissioners have one foot in two futures," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel of 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "They could continue with business as usual' which means opening up [the county] to sprawling development and the cost of servicing these sprawling homes. The commissioners also have a foot in a better future, an alternative future.
"At the end of the day where we put our money will affect our quality of life, the strength of the community and where development goes. Smart growth is investing in the community we have," she said.
Hosted by the Smarter Growth Alliance for Charles County, the public forum included presentations by Bevan-Dangel; Eric Fisher, a planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Jim Long of the Mattawoman Creek Watershed Society; and local businessman Josh Urban.
"All of us are here because we care about the future of the county. The question is, what's the best way to get there?" Fisher said. "We're not trying to point fingers … but if [the commissioners] continue to invest in harmful development we're not going to get the future we want for the county."
The potential development in question could be the result of the controversial link between the eastern and western halves of the county.
Three phases of the $47 million connector remain incomplete, the six miles between Middletown Road and Route 210 that run straight through the county's development district and across Mattawoman Creek.
The county defends its plan based on two needs, to avoid a labyrinth of impervious street surfaces connecting neighborhoods in line for development and for a safer route between Route 210 and U.S. 301.
The presenters at the forum advocated development in the denser priority funding areas of the county.
"Put roads, schools and communities in major areas," Bevan-Dangel said. "Even if the environment didn't matter … the county can't afford the infrastructure costs. Forty-seven million dollars: Is this the right choice for a county that is facing so many financial [challenges]?"
But the environment does matter for many residents and conservationists, which is why the risk of degradation to Mattawoman Creek was highlighted during the forum.
"We are what we eat. Mattawoman Creek is what we feed it," Long, the watershed activist, said.
Long said one of the starkest results of the connector's passage through the sensitive area would be about 14 football fields worth of wetland lost in one fell swoop.
"Seven acres is equal to one-fifth of the annual loss for the entire state," Long said.
Impervious surfaces cause more flooding, erosion, hotter water and pollution, Long said. The roadway will replace land used by waterfowl and degrade the water that is used as a breeding ground, nursery and home to numerous fish species.
About 30 minutes of the forum was set aside for a question-and-answer session between the audience and speakers, but many chose to make statements of their own or posed questions to the three county commissioners who were present, commissioners' Vice President Edith J. Patterson (D), Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D).
None of them answered citizens' questions.
Nanjemoy resident Kevin Grimes wondered aloud that if the safety of Billingsley Road is such an important factor for building the connector, why did the county not start construction from the western end of the project?
Scott Sewell, conservation director for the Maryland Bass Angler Sportsman Society Federation Nation, was joined by several of his fellow federation members, who came to support the conservation of the Mattawoman.
"If this creek loses its pristine nature … you're going to lose revenue for the county," Sewell said. "I've fished from Alabama to Maine and this is the best place on the East Coast for bass fishing. You're very fortunate to have the creek."